I love New Orleans. On this latest visit, I realized that, outside of Washington, DC, I’ve visited NOLA more than any other American city (outside of those I’ve lived in). Five years after Katrina, my affection and admiration for this city’s (and this region’s) residents is undimmed.
It’s fun to come explore new parts of the city, but I also love doing some things each and every time I visit. Even in the depths of the Katrina recovery, people would want you to visit and have fun. First, they’d tell you how grateful they were that you’d come to help. Then they’d tell you to be sure and have some fun while you were in town. And then they’d ask you to tell you friends to come and do the same. This was my fourth post-Katrina trip, and here are a few of the things I love doing on each visit, which I hope will continue to be at least once a year.
Café du Monde: Yeah, yeah, it’s on everybody’s list of things to do. But I love starting as many days as possible here, watching the sun light up St. Louis Cathedral, and hearing life start to return to the French Quarter (from which, at sunrise, it’s only been absent for about 30 or 40 minutes). On my first visit, I camped out here while the rain poured and poured, and I drank coffee after coffee waiting for the torrents to end. If there’s any kind of crowd in town, there’ll be a line a lot earlier than you might expect, so get there early and grab a table right on the edge of Decatur Street. Your other option is the takeout line, but it’s just not the same. It’s not really a day in New Orleans unless you begin it coated with powdered sugar, which is an unavoidable consequence of the mandatory order of three beignets.
Po-Boys: One of my favorite things about New Orleans is the food. You can walk into nearly any restaurant, anywhere in town, and find something great to eat. You can spend $2 or $200 for a meal, and leave wishing that you had those kinds of assurances back home. (That begs the question of why you would drop the big bucks on a meal at one of the city’s many more expensive restaurants, but it’s worth setting those thoughts aside every now and then.) I’ve had po-boys to remember everywhere from Metairie to Algiers to the French Quarter and beyond. Mother’s (in the Central Business district at the NW corner of Poydras and Tchoupitoulas) or Johnny’s in the French Quarter (on St. Louis, just above Decatur) are classic, but the downside is that everyone else knows that, too. Luckily, they’re by no means exclusive. Take the Algiers ferry to Dry Dock Café, if you need another recommendation, but it seems that everybody here makes a great sandwich. It all starts with the bread: a terrific French loaf that crackles as you bite into it, and then gives way completely and lets you get to the filling. My two favorites are roast beef, and fried shrimp. Don’t leave without having one of each.
French Quarter: Frankly, I can do without Bourbon Street. I’m not a prude, but I like my alcohol without having to endure dozens of solicitations for skin and peep shows, much less the above-average chance of having every stage of excessive alcohol consumption demonstrated for you within two blocks. If this makes you nervous (as it has several folks I’ve traveled with), just do your exploring before dinnertime. (Things do start to change a little as nighttime descends.) One of my favorite pastimes is exploring Royal Street, classy relative to Bourbon that’s just a block closer to the river but miles away in stature. Here, the storefronts feature antiques, art, books, clothes, and the occasional restaurant or coffeehouse. Pick a favorite and walk in (and, as in France, be sure to greet the proprietor as you enter). Chances are you’ll either strike up a great conversation, find something cool to look at, make a wonderful purchase, or all three.
On this trip, my daughter and I wandered in to Vintage 329, a memorabilia store. Among other things, we saw a 1957 flag signed by Martin Luther King, Jr. & Coretta Scott King, Roy Wilkins, and Malcolm X (1957); a U.S. flag signed by all recent presidents (Nixon, Carter, Reagan, both Bushes, Clinton and Obama), as well as walls full of autographed music memorabilia, antique maps, and exquisite silver pieces. It’s still New Orleans, though: you can take your drink into 329, but you do have to leave it on top of the jukebox. No cell phones, though: gotta have a little class.
Jackson Square: I think this, and adjacent St. Louis Cathedral, are the center of New Orleans. The cathedral anchored the Creole culture that originally built the city, and provided the canvas on which a rich palette of cultures subsequently made contributions. The cathedral is gorgeous, and the plaza outside is home to musicians, palm readers, performance artists (is staying perfectly still a performance?), and others. If you had one place to go in New Orleans, this would be it. The cathedral is flanked by the Cabildo, now home to several pieces of the Louisiana State Museum. The northern side had a lengthy and moving exhibit on ‘Living With Hurricanes’, which used a brief historical introduction as a lead in to the story of Katrina, with all the horrors, heroism, and pride that accompanied this disaster, our country’s faltering response, and the aftermath. Hang out on one of the benches in the square, enjoy the gardens, and try and figure out just what Andrew Jackson is looking at. Go back and grab another coffee at Café du Monde if you need it, or head up Pirate’s Alley to the wonderfully dense bookstore in Faulkner House (his residence for two years while he wrote for the Times-Picayune).
French Market: From Jackson Square, turn left and head north (downstream) on Decatur to the French Market. The vendors themselves have t-shirts, jewelry, photographs, paintings, packaged foods, masks, and anything else you can imagine, although fresh foods are a little hard to find. Across the street is Central Grocery, home to the famous muffaletta. If you’re not up to a sandwich at the moment, take home a quart of the olive salad that really makes the sandwich; if you are hungry, don’t buy a whole one unless you’ve brought a friend. Any other seasoning or spice or ingredient needed for Cajun or Creole cooking can also be found here. Now’s the time to indulge yourself with a little sweet stuff: head across the market to Evans Candy Shop. There are a lot of places that will sell you a praline, but this is my favorite: it’s a big store, the cases are enormous, and you can grab a sample while the friendly ladies wait out your indecisiveness. After you’ve picked out your flavor of praline, be careful: it may look like a cookie, but you’ll end up unconscious if you eat it too quickly. No other item I know of packs as heavy a sugar punch.